John Lill in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My twenty-third interview in the Classical Conversation Series features celebrated British concert pianist John Lill. This is John’s 70th Birthday year and I caught up with him recently at Steinway Hall in London.

Unanimously described as one of the leading pianists of his generation, John Lill’s concert career spans over 55 years. He has given concerts in over fifty countries, both as a recitalist and as a soloist with the world’s greatest orchestras. His rare talent emerged at an early age – he gave his first piano recital at the age of nine. At eighteen he performed Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto under Sir Adrian Boult, immediately followed by his much-acclaimed London début  playing Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall. His early career flourished and was enhanced by many prestigious international prizes and awards. In 1970 he won the most coveted of these, the Moscow International Tchaikovsky Competition, further consolidating his already busy international concert schedule.

John Lill’s extensive repertoire includes more than eighty concertos, and he is acclaimed in particular as a leading interpreter of Beethoven, whose complete sonata cycle he has performed on several occasions in the UK, USA and Japan. In Britain he has given over 25 London Promenade concerts and regularly appears with all the major symphony orchestras. He has toured overseas with the London Symphony, London Philharmonic, BBC Symphony, City of Birmingham, Hallé, Royal Scottish National and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestras.

He regularly performs in all the European capitals, Russia, the Far East, South America, Australasia, (including several ABC tours) and he is a frequent visitor to the United States, where he has worked with the Cleveland and Philadelphia Orchestras, Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic and the Orchestras of Baltimore, Dallas, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Rochester, San Diego, Seattle and Washington.

More recently John Lill has performed with the St Petersburg, Rotterdam, Royal Stockholm, Czech, Oslo, London and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Hallé Orchestra, National Philharmonic of Russia, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and RTVE Orchestra Madrid, together with the Vancouver, Seattle, Indianapolis, Bournemouth, Royal Scottish National and Sapporo Symphony Orchestras. He also gave recitals throughout the UK and Europe, USA, Russia, Japan and Australia.  The 2013-14 season includes return visits to these countries in addition to other musical centres, including Warsaw, Beijing and Hong Kong.

John also embarks on a much anticipated Beethoven Sonata Cycle in London and Manchester, in celebration of his 70th Birthday and will give recitals at, amongst others, the Benaroya Hall in Seattle, Dublin’s National Concert Hall, and the Grand Hall of St Petersburg Philharmonia. Concerto highlights include a UK tour with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, including the Royal Festival Hall, his débuts with the NCPA Orchestra Beijing and Vienna’s Tonkünstler Orchestra, plus return visits to the Hallé, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Royal Scottish National and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestras. He will also return to Moscow to perform all the Beethoven Concerti with the National Philharmonic of Russia and Vladimir Spivakov.

John Lill has recorded for Deutsche Grammophon, EMI (Complete Beethoven Piano Concertos with RSNO and Gibson), ASV (both Brahms Concertos with the Hallé and Loughran) plus the complete Beethoven Sonatas and Pickwick Records (Tchaikovsky l with the LSO and Judd).  More recently he has recorded the complete Prokofiev sonatas with ASV and his recent recording of the complete Beethoven Bagatelles and Piano Concertos with the CBSO and Weller is available on Chandos.  He recorded Malcolm Arnold’s Fantasy on a Theme of John Field (dedicated to John Lill) with RPO and Handley for Conifer and the complete Rachmaninov Concertos and major solo piano works for Nimbus Records.  His most recent recording projects have been the 60th birthday release of piano works by Schumann on the Classics for Pleasure label and 2 new releases for Signum records of Schumann and Brahms and Haydn Piano Sonatas.

John Lill has been awarded many Honorary Doctorates and Fellowships from British Universities, Colleges and Academies. He lives in London and was awarded the OBE in 1977 and the CBE for his services to music in the 2005 New Year’s Honours’ List.

Here’s the transcript for those who prefer to read interviews:

Melanie Spanswick:  Celebrated British concert pianist, John Lill, won The Tchaikovsky Competition in 1970 and has since then developed a fantastic career playing with all the top orchestras and conductors around the world. He’s won many prizes and accolades for his playing and, in 2005, was awarded the CBE for his services to music. So, I’m thrilled that he’s joined me here today, in Steinway Hall in London, for a classical conversation. Welcome.

John Lill: Thank you, Melanie. It’s good to be here, thank you.

Melanie:  I’m just going to start by asking you all about your musical education: how old you were when you started, why you started, and whether you come from a musical family?

John:  Well, to answer the last question first. No, not a musical family. I think my father was gifted. He could vamp, and he could play an instrument very roughly. But, he was a very, very gifted amateur cartoonist, but he didn’t make any money out of it. So, that’s the art side of the family. My mother was very wise and very great supporter, and she instinctively made the right decisions about what I should do. But, they tell me I picked out tunes on a neighbour’s piano when I was about three and half or four, and I couldn’t be removed from it. I was always there.

So, there was some strong magnetic force that kept me there or some force, not necessarily magnetic. And then, eventually they scrimped and saved. They were quite poor. They were very poor, and they got a beaten up second-hand upright piano which, of course, I loved. I soon beat that to bits, lasted for about two years. That’s the way it began, and I gave my first concert when I was about nine, and that was with Beethoven’s  Sonatas.

Melanie: And so, which teacher then do you think or which teachers do you think were most crucial?”

John:  I had different teachers. I kept chopping and changing, especially when I got a scholarship to study full-time at the Royal College. I was really head-strong then. I suppose I still am. But, I always felt I knew best, but, of course, I was wrong on occasions. But, if you’re a soloist in the end I think you really have to be convincing, and if you’re not convinced by what you’re playing yourself, if you’re just copying somebody else or imitating somebody else, you’re on the wrong track. It has to be inevitable and inevitably you who makes that communication. I mean, it’s a three part thing. It’s the creator of the music, the composer. The re-creator which is the performer, and the receiver which is the public. I think they’re all necessary. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t like recordings, because there’s only two of those components in a cozy little studio. I like the idea of walking on a plank, having one chance to get it right. It’s a good challenge, and that atmosphere from the public is very important. It’s very very important, a powerful ingredient in any concert.

Melanie: So, which teachers then do you think- Do you think you learnt the most when you were at Royal College?

John:  Again, I changed. I left after two years, because of the pressure of concert work. I did write the Rachmaninov 3rd Concerto at the college by Sir Adrian Boult when I was 18, and that produced a lot of publicity and then of course there was a big demand for my work as a pianist. So, I left early. I had to two or three different tutors and I learnt a bit from them all, but I think I’ve learnt most from attending different pianists when given the acid test, going to their concerts. Because talk is easy, talk is cheap. But, action counts far more than words. I think I learnt more than anybody playing watching and listening to Claudio Arrau, probably still my favourite pianist. I was lucky enough to know him and saw him quite often. I think we got on very well indeed. He was an incredibly humble man not at all full of himself, as so many artists are. I think the case is that the top people in their field are like that. I was lucky enough to meet Shostakovich. He came to one of my concerts in Vienna, and he was as close as you talking to an interpreter- completely natural, very nervous, but very natural, nothing superior- and, of course, it made my decade. So, Claudio Arrau, I think, was mostly the contributor to what I have developed. He was a guiding light, if you like. But, that said, you still want to be true to yourself.

Melanie:  Yes, sure. How did you develop your technique? Because, for me, you’re look like a very natural player, but do you ever work at technical things?

John:  I’ve been lucky to have – I’ve always had a pretty natural technique. It’s been self-inflicted, if you’d like. It’s just developed naturally. I do think it’s a very important thing to be relaxed when you play, physically. A lot of people, they throw themselves around, and all this misdirected energy that should be going into the fingers is going into something else. It’s wasted. That’s why I hate affectation or even fashionable approaches to  works, because there’s only one right way as far as I’m concerned and that’s the inevitable way it has to be at that concert. Now, tomorrow it could be a different set of circumstances. Your blood pressure might be different, your mood might be different, acoustic might be different. So, again, it’s why I don’t like recordings so much, because they fix you to one predictable thing where as a concert is always new and fresh.

Melanie: You won the Tchaikovsky Prize. What impact did this have on your career? It must have been a significant moment.

John:  Yeah. It was colossal, because it gave me – although I was very busy giving concerts at that time – it gave me a premature sort of international passport. So, I then travelled widely over the globe giving concerts. I think I took on too much for two years or so, because I was anxious not to cancel the previously booked concerts by people who had the courage to book me before it was safe to do so.

Melanie: (Laughter) Yes.

John:  At the same time, I didn’t want to refuse too many of the new requests, obviously. So, I was living a double life for a couple of years, the older concerts and the newer ones. But, that was a very busy period. I was doing about 130 concerts a year, and I don’t think musically I progressed because of that. There was just so much traveling and so much playing. Then, I realized, of course, you’ve just got to give yourself time and you’ve got to give yourself space to learn new repertoire and to keep the music you’re playing fresh.

Melanie: Do you think then that the competitions are still a good way for a young pianist to establish their career? Because there’s so many of them now.

John: Yes. There are too many, I think. When I did the Tchaikovsky, there were only a handful of very notable competitions. I think now they are so common and they’re not questionable. But, I think they’re a necessary evil, if you like.

I mean, we’ve always had competition. People are competitive. Look at the whole world of sports, and, in Beethoven’s day, he competed by improvising at certain competitions and things like that. People are always judged. If you give a concert, it’s like a miniature competition. People judge you. You are compared with somebody else. So, it’s necessary, but I don’t particularly like the idea of it. And, I think there are very good chances of doing very well without having to win one. I mean, there are a lot of famous pianists didn’t win as first players, but of course it’s a useful tag to have. But, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a marvelous experience to have, but I’m only as good as my last concert. You’ve just got to be very true with yourself and be our own severest critic.

Melanie:  Yes. Now, you’re renowned for Beethoven and this is your 70th- I hope you don’t mind me saying that it’s your 70th birthday year- and, you’re playing his complete sonatas. Several times you’ve just done them at Bridgewater Hall in Manchester and at Cadogan Hall in London. So, what is it that draws you back to these works time and time again?

John: Oh, they’re just incredibly great. I mean, Beethoven’s something special to me, always has been. I think, it’s the strength and the directness of the utterances, the sincerity, and the complete lack of affectation in his writing.  It’s completely direct. Also, the range of imagination is monumental. I mean, from the deepest tragic moments, those profound utterances, to the most hysterical humour. Everything. And, I think, at his greatest, his music goes beyond emotion, it’s pure spirituality in the end. And, that’s something which is so rarely found in modern life, because it’s so materialistic and so full of instant gratification. And, the media and educational systems, successive governments, don’t really help.

Melanie:  No. That’s interesting. What other composers do you really love to play?

John: Oh, there are so many, and it’s depends very much on my mood. Bach, of course. Joins Beethoven, to be at super genius level, but then Mozart, Brahms. These people are very special to me.

But, Schumann, I mean, how can you live without that? Haydn? And Prokofiev. Some of the Russians, Rachmaninoff. Schubert, Schubert is fantastic music. We are so spoiled as pianists to have such a wide repertoire to choose from. I mean, if I played the serpent or nose flute, I’d be pretty hard up when it came to repertoire.

Melanie: (Laughter) What repertoire if any, do you find challenging? You probably don’t find anything challenging.

John:  Well, perfection is impossible in this life. Everything has to be mastered, if possible. But, you could never actually get perfection, whatever you do. But, it’s the approaching it that gives you the buzz, and I think every work has different sorts of difficulties. It’s not dependent on speed or numbers of notes. It’s dependent on getting it right. And, Mozart’s sonata with its economical writing would be probably more difficult than the demanding Rachmaninoff concerto to perfect or to try to. So, it’s really not the question of how it looks on paper.

It’s the question of the inner meaning and the little subtleties, the little rubato passages which should always be natural, never self-inflicted.

Melanie:  Do you have a particular practice regime? I know you do, because I know you have 70 concertos at least in your head.

John:  Yeah. I like to work with a stopwatch. So, I always like to net, let’s say, four hours, five hours a day. Which mean you’ve got to be there for longer because of answering the phone or going out, getting a walk or something. I feel that discipline does bring strength, whatever you do. I think- although I’m not particularly disciplined – I think I am in my work, and practicing to me is very very important. You pre-determine what you’re going to do. I’m going to learn this piece today, and I shall have it memorised by tomorrow, I say to myself. And, you have to work towards that. Otherwise, you’re just flap along and doing very little. But, I’m very lucky, because I can make a lot of noise where I live and nobody appears to hear anything. I think musicians can be very selfish with the noise they make, especially in hotels and places like that in which I always refuse to play. I’m very aware of that, so I’m very lucky.

Melanie: Which venues have you loved to play in? Do you have a favourite venue or is there lots of different ones you’ve loved?

John: In Britain, one of my favorites really has to be the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester for where I’m now doing these complete Beethoven sonatas. To me as a pianist, it’s the perfect acoustic and beautifully designed. But, of course, Birmingham also, the Symphony Hall there it’s very very good. London is disappointing. It needs a really good symphony hall itself, which it really doesn’t have. But, there are many worldwide. I mean, you go to a place like Seattle in the States. You get a wonderful hall there. I’m doing a recital there next year, and I play there annually. There are certain areas in the States which have got excellent halls – Dallas. And, of course, in Russia, many fine halls. None of them particularly large in Russia, it’s interesting.  But, they’ve got fine characteristics. And, I recently played for the first time a recital in Beijing, and that hall was quite new. It was two years or three years old, wonderfully impressive, marvelous sound.

Melanie: China is really coming up….

John: Yes. Yes, and the talent that’s coming from the country. Everywhere you listen now, if you’re going to any competition to hear- I was adjudicating a competition in Brisbane when I was in Australia recently, and it was mostly Orientals and very high standard. And, I regularly go to Japan and they are many fine halls there, too. So, it’s an exciting job. It’s never two days the same.

Melanie: What’s your most treasured musical memory? If you have one?

John: I suppose the announcement of the Tchaikovsky Competition. I was first prizewinner. Joint first prizewinner, with Vladimir Krainev. Sadly, he passed away a couple of years ago. But also, attending Arrau doing both of Brahms concertos in one evening with Adrian Boult conducting at the Festival Hall. That was a very special concert, and I can still remember the thrill of it. It was just an amazing experience. Must have been 1962 or 3. And a handful of concerts like that, but, if you want one, I would say- Well, concerts I’ve attended, I would say that one, the one with Boult and Arrau with the Brahms.

Melanie: What exciting plans have you got for the future? It’s an important year. You’ve got a lot of concerts this year.

John: “Yes. It’s especially busy this year. My plans are simply to get better and better. Realize, there’s no limit to that. Always be, as I said earlier, your severest critic. It’s very important. A few critics are worth reading, but it’s a small percentage. I think, really, it’s one other person’s opinion. Sometimes you get an appalling review, but you know you’ve done well. Sometimes you get an appalling review for a concert you haven’t given. That’s happened to me twice.

Melanie: (Laughter)

John: Other times, you can get a rave review when you know you played badly. So, I think that’s even worse. Always be true to yourself, I think, in the end, and never feel that you’re better than you are. Always realize that perfection is up there.

Melanie: What does playing the piano mean to you?

John: It means I’m in charge of an orchestra. I don’t like the idea of it just being a percussion machine. I mean, it’s a wonderful one-man band, if you think about it. But, it’s an orchestra when I play it. I love symphonic works. I try to make it into an orchestra. And, I think if you’re an illusionist – which you have to be as a pianist – it can actually work. The public can be aware of far more colours than the thing is technically able to produce. You have to be a bit of an illusionist or a large illusionist to do the work properly. So, I think of it as an orchestra.

Melanie: Thank you so much for joining me today.

John: Pleasure. Thank you.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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